Location: Cikalapa, North Bandung, West Java
Sound: Gembyung (also called gembyungan, more generically, terbang or terbangan)
Note: When I initially wrote this post two years ago, I had no idea where the group featured here was from nor in what context they usually play. I also didn't know that they prefer the name gembyung (a name also used for frame drums in Cirebon, which may suggest a link between the two traditions, although they sound quite different!) Considering this gap in my knowledge, my "Sound" write-up consisted just of a quotation from Uwe Pätzold in the fantastic compilation of essays, Music and Islam in Indonesia, about the more widespread ensemble called terbangan. I'll keep that there and follow it up with what I know now. - PK
“The terbangan ensemble consists of three to five frame drums of the terbang type, without attached metal cymbals. Optional instruments include the membranophones bedug, kendang, and kulanter, as well as the idiophone kecrek and the double-reed aerophone, tarompet…Terbangan subgenres are numerous […] It can be said, however, that terbangan is the most common music ensemble found in connection with pondok pesantren, madrasah, and tarekat [Muslim educational institutions] in West Java.
According to Suryadi (1983, 17), the name “ter(e)bang” etymologically is derived from “to raise, to fly” (terbang) because its music was traditionally intended solely for transporting one’s soul to the Seventh Heaven of Islam, to God the Creator (Tuhan Yang Maha Kuasa)"
- Uwe Pätzold in "Divine Inspirations: Music and Islam in Indonesia," edited by David Harnish and Anne Rasmussen
What I Know Now (A Prescript/Postscript of Sorts):
In January, 2015, I was invited to an annual ritual by a community I'd been in touch with in Subang, an area north of Bandung which is really bursting with wonderful traditional music. The community goes by the name Kampung Adat Banceuy - kampung means village, while adat refers to traditional custom. In other words, Banceuy is a village that very intentionally adheres quite closely to the customs handed down from their ancestors, and not surprisingly their musical culture is thus also quite strong (I originally had gone there to meet a local master of toleat, a neat bamboo aerophone originating in Subang.)
I was told that in order to celebrate Maulud, or the birth of the prophet Muhammad, a ritual would be performed including gembyungan music, the local variety of terbang frame drum described above. The performance was at the burial site of a prominent ancestor and founder of Banceuy, Aki Leutik. I remember driving all the way to the spot from Bandung, past the volcano Tangkuban Perahu, through the rolling tea plantations of Ciater, mountains thick with hot springs and waterfalls. Arriving at the site, something felt familiar - the old men had assembled and were preparing their large gembyung drums, rubbing them with fragrant oil and passing them through the fragrant smoke of jasmine-scented incense.
When they started playing, the rhythm slow and steady, the voices weathered but firm, I had a wonderful "Aha!" moment...I'd seen these guys! In fact, they'd played in my backyard in Bandung, and I'd written about them! I'd been bewitched by their music then, and finally I had a peek into where they came from, what kind of context this music most often lives in. Just as I'd suspected, the artform merged aspects of pre-Islamic belief systems (at least one song was devoted to Nyi Pohaci (also called Dewi Sri), the rice goddess, while another was for the ancestors) with explicitly Islamic elements (prayers in Arabic before and after the performance, frame drums with Middle Eastern origins, the context of Maulud.)
Indeed, the focus seemed to shift from one song. The first song, a friend described for me, was for god, or Allah. The second was for the wali (literally "guardian", or saint) Aki Leutik, the founding father near whose tomb we were sitting. The third song was for the ancestors, while the fourth was for Nyi Pohaci. Other secular Sundanese songs like "Siuh", "Kembang Gadung", and "Ayun Ambing" (the song I recorded in Dago) are also peppered in the mix, although their melodies seem to be altered to fit the idiom of the gembyungan songs.
The performance near my home in Dago (as I describe below) had been part of a local festival, generally secular in nature. "Untuk hiburan aja" the locals might have said - "For entertainment." What was remarkable was that, in Banceuy, I witnessed the same reaction to the music once more - the same slow, deliberate dancing, the dancers entering an altered state where other forces seemed to take over. The men dancing in Banceuy were considerably older than the youth in Dago, and their actions were more deliberate and practiced, more steeped in a specific ritual. One dancer would approach the plate of offerings to the spirits and sample them, snacking on a banana here, and a rice cake there. I asked him later, as he recovered, what he'd been doing. He replied that the spirits that had taken over his body had guided him to eat those foods which they favored most.
What's remarkable about the dancing in Dago, then, is not the absence of such ritual, but that the local youth seemed to know exactly how to dance to this music, that trance was not just allowed but required. This is a mystery to me - as far as I know, there is no gembyung or even terbangan anywhere close to my neighborhood, and Banceuy is a world away. How did these local kids know how to dance like that, how to allow the trance to take hold? Is it something that is learned at all, then, or is it something deeper than that? For now, the answer is a mystery.
Last October, a festival of sorts was arranged in my neighborhood in the north of Bandung, with a small stage set up and performances of traditional and modern music continuing throughout the day. I was told that later in the evening, a special performance of tarawangsa, a kind of instrumental trance music, would take place in Cikalapa, the small grouping of footpaths in which I live.
When I walked up the footpath that night, what I found was not tarawangsa, but terbangan, a style of music I had never heard or even heard of. Five musicians sat on a low, recently constructed stage – three men playing terbang [now I know they must have been gembyung - PK], the large frame drums (also called rebana in other contexts), one man on kendang, and one man on the metallic kecrek. In front of them sat the hallmarks of a trance ceremony – offerings to the spirits in the form of food and drinks, as well as burning incense.
The music began slowly, the instruments and vocals of the terbang players amplified through a pretty lo-fi speaker system (thus the not-so-great sound of the recording.) One older man led the chant, while the other members occasionally joined in unison. Almost immediately young men from the audience moved to the grassy patch of “dancing space” in front of the stage. Some of them wore the black clothes and iket (headband) traditionally worn by Sundanese artists, while others wore jeans and metal band sweatshirts. Slowly swaying to the music and dancing in the distinctive Sundanese style, all bent arms and knees, many of the men fell into a trance.
Some of the young men began to roll on the ground, seemingly not in control of their movement while others continued to sway intensely, eyes closed. One teenaged boy in particular seemed particularly taken by the music as the tempo quickened – in an intense moment of catharsis or trance, the boy fell to his knees and let out a haunting cry. This continued for a quite a few minutes – if you listen to the recording the sound is loud and unmistakeable.
Despite the fact that Islam is the majority religion in West Java and much of the rest of Indonesia, pre-Islamic traditions and beliefs still hold an important place in Indonesian society. This event is a fascinating example of how something like “Islamic music” does not always exist in a pure context – here it is easily fused with pre-Islamic Sundanese trance practices. While the music is clearly intended for an out-of-body religious experience (see the previous mention of the origins of the name “terbangan” in “flight”), here this potential for a kind of disembodied trance – the monotonous rhythm, the chant-like vocals, the crescendo of rhythm – all lend themselves to a kind of trance experience that seems to be somewhere closer to pre-Islamic notions of trance as spirit possession.
Some may see a contradiction in this co-existence, but few who play and enjoy this music and the surrounding rituals seem to mind.
Hatur nuhun pisan to the musicians of Gembyungan Wargi Seluyu: Abah Ukar, Ahdi, Kidil, Karman, and Sapta.